Why wander aimlessly towards your goals when a map can lead you right to them?
Guest Writer: Dr. Dillon Elliott
Can you do a one-arm pull-up, or continue to pile on more plates to your weighted pull-ups, but struggle to break into V8? Or, maybe you can hang a ton of weight on a 20mm edge, but when slapping up an overhanging prow you find yourself melting off…
There is an overwhelming mass of information on how to progress your climbing; but it's usually generalized protocols written for everybody, that are best for nobody. To begin building your map to stronger climbing, you need a way to cut through the noise and understand your own unique climber profile.
Photo: Dr. Dillon Elliott on Room Service V12
Measuring a variety of physical attributes (i.e. weighted hangs and pull-ups) is a good place to start. From here, consider what these metrics should look like relative to the grade you're climbing, other strength exercises, and other climbers at a similar level and body size to you.
Complete the puzzle
These metrics are not the entire story, however they are a valuable part of it. We can use them to better understand why and how you favour (or avoid) specific climbing movements, holds, and styles.
Specify your training
With this foundation of understanding, you can formulate a training plan to progress effectively and efficiently. As a tip, you'll want to focus on your weaknesses and capitalise on what is already an asset!
Let's look at some examples...
Climber #1: Granita
Meet Granita, they can typically boulder around V7 in a few sessions on most problem types.
Granita tested their 2-arm hanging strength on a 20mm edge, and 2-arm pulling strength on a bar by adding weight until reaching failure for each exercise. See figure 1 below.
Granita also tested their 3-finger drag grip position, once with both hands, then one hand at a time. See figure 2 below.
What we've learned
Granita's finger pulling strength (Figure 1) is about where we would expect for someone climbing at that level. However, we see a fairly large disparity between their bar pulling strength and what we typically see from a climber at the V7 level.
It's particularly interesting, and not typical, that Granita almost pulls the same force with their fingers on a 20mm edge as they do when pulling on a bar. This could be due to weak shoulders, arms, and/or upper back.
When pulling on an edge with the 3-finger drag grip position, we see that they're pulling significantly less than what we usually expect of another climber at the same ability level (view figure 2 above).
However, upon closer examination, we identify that the left hand alone is responsible for this disparity. It turns out Granita had suffered a flexor tendon injury on the left side earlier in the year and had not rehabbed the 3-finger drag position.
So, what does this mean for Granita?
They likely gravitate toward finger-dominant climbing, feel they lack upper body pulling strength (especially on steeper terrain with large powerful movements) and they might feel weak or perhaps not comfortable with using the 3-finger drag grip on their left side.
Granita also explains they are rarely unable to 'hold the hold', but limited by their ability to launch themselves towards a hold has been avoiding using the 3-finger drag grip for fear of reinjury.
Applying this knowledge to training
Does Granita need to do more max-weighted hangs?
Probably not. Upper body pulling strength is the most obvious target for intervention here, especially if Granita's goal is to become a more well-rounded climber and to continue progressing over the long term.
Do they need stronger fingers?
Based on Granita's already adequate finger strength, the answer is no. What's more, the energy spent on finger training may actually take away from other aspects of training and climbing which would yield a larger return. Besides, in Granita's case being able to pull harder in general will likely spill over into harder pulling on an edge.
Lastly, we have uncovered a significant imbalance between the right and left sides in the 3-finger drag position. It would be greatly beneficial for Granita to do targeted rehab for strength, resilience, and confidence to rebuild their weaker side.
Climber #2: Tufast
Turn to Tufast who can typically sport climb around 5.12c within a few sessions on most types of routes. They feel especially confident on routes that are on mostly vertical terrain with good holds and often find they can easily latch the holds quickly.
Tufast replicated the same 20mm and bar pull strength test as Granita did in Figure 1.
Considering Tufast's ability to quickly latch holds, we want to use another type of insightful physical metric: the Dynamic Strength Index (DSI).
DSI quantifies how quickly someone can engage their muscles and connective tissues, and in the case of climbing, is often used to represent contact strength. Think of a deadpoint move where you quickly snatch and engage a hold to stop yourself from falling away from the wall.
What we've learned
Contrary to Granita, Tufast's bar pulling strength is relatively close to what we would expect, yet their finger pulling strength is much less than anticipated relative to their climbing level (Figure 3).
Tufast is remarkably fast with a much higher than average DSI. With this metric we begin to understand why they excel at the style they describe! Their slow recruitment finger strength is relatively low, BUT, they can use almost every ounce of that strength in a split second (91% of it in 200ms to be exact!).
Applying this knowledge to training
With the help of these measurements, we can plainly see that Tufast does not need to work on contact strength (or speed of engagement), but can certainly benefit from slow recruitment finger strength training, and perhaps a little bit of pulling strength training.
Dr. Dillon's Database
I've collected a lot of data over the years on a variety of edge sizes, grip types, and contraction speeds.
Peak force on a 20mm edge remains one of the most useful starting points, but it offers limited insight. For example, if I find a climber pulls much higher numbers than I would expect, I want to find an objective reason WHY they can pull that hard but are unable to climb the correlated grade range. Sometimes it's related to contact strength, limitations in other grip types, outdoor experience and/or the corresponding skill set.
Just as often, I see the opposite with someone climbing well above their anticipated level relative to their 20mm finger strength. Regardless, I go through the same process of trying to discover why that is and what allows them to do this.
These real-life examples demonstrate how objective assessment can help guide us forward, but we must recognize that one isolated measurement is not worth much on its own - it's simply a single snapshot within a much larger story. This is where the art of applying this data to each individual climber comes into play. Understanding experience, skills, confidence, unique body, thoughts, beliefs, motivations, and life circumstances all come into play.
Time for you to test
If you're interested in investigating your own physical profile, here is a link to what is commonly known as the '9C test' which is a simple assessment anyone can perform on themselves with common gym equipment. Find your maximal ability for each of the 4 exercises in the chart below; then, add up the number of corresponding points to see what climbing level your physical strength roughly corresponds to. You can also consider the individual exercise results for further insight.
Watch: The strength you need to climb 9c // The ultimate climbing test posted by Magnus.
Through my assessment experience, I have found the cells highlighted in green to be roughly comparable to my own data and likely most useful (Note: it is comparable when adjusting for the difference in testing method - i.e. hanging vs pulling, 2-arm vs 1-arm testing).
Other considerations with the '9C test'
- The full front lever has a large variance depending on a person's body shape and relative proportions.
- This data set does not account for large variations in climber height.
- More nuanced details such as grip types, finger positions, edge sizes, joint angles, and contraction speeds/contact strength are not considered.
- Max bar hang time I have not investigated, although I can confirm that hanging longer on a 20mm edge is certainly correlated with climbing higher grades.
I like how this test is simple to execute, needs minimal equipment, and can give you insight towards various physical attributes - which can then be used to inform your plan for progressing your climbing!
Dr. Dillon Elliott, DC, BSc (Kin), is a chiropractor and certified Performance Climbing Coach. He's been an avid climber since 2013 with an interest in training and treating climbing related injuries. After success combining in-person manual therapy with remote coaching and programming for his clients, Dr. Dillion Elliot created Bouldering Breakdown Coaching and Climbing. You can follow him on Instagram @boulderingbreakdown or check his website out to get in touch with any climbing program, assessment, or consultation related inquiries.
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